ISO 26000 applicability

by Guido Gürtler, January 2011
The standard “ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility” can be considered an interesting experiment. This type of “guidance standard” is new and the world needs to learn that it offers recommendations, advice, proposals, and orientation; nothing less, nothing more. It does not contain requirements and is voluntary in use. It is directed to organizations, not to individuals. It was published in November 2010, and one of its greatest benefits so far is boosting the global discussion on social responsibility, i.e. the discussion “on what should be a better social behaviour of organizations”. Characteristics of social responsibility Social responsibility has to do with societies and their attendant cultural norms. But societies differ: by nations and regions, history, political system, culture, religion, level of education, beliefs, ways of thinking, affluence and poverty, level of law and regulation, and other factors. Different societies follow different customs and standards, written ones and non-written ones. Societies want to develop but also to maintain their special character. So, the real question on social responsibility is: “What kind of “contribution to society” can an organization offer and realize?” To behave in a socially responsible manner is something full of dynamics because societies’ needs and demands change on a daily basis. These permanently changing priorities challenge the creativity of organizations, staff and leadership, in identifying the currently most important and effective contributions. ISO has taken a wise decision to offer “only” a guidance standard, and has banned certification, jointly with IAF, the International Accreditation Forum. See ISO's press release “It's crystal clear. No certification to ISO 26000 guidance standard on social Responsibility” at http://www.iso.org/iso/pressrelease.htm?refid=Ref1372; Why a “wise decision”? Because certification is only a snapshot in time, tending to make one believe in having made all possible contributions to society, thereby serving to stifle this crucial creativity. In other words, a “social responsibility certificate” would demonstrate that both the receiver and the issuer may not have sufficiently understood the essential character of social responsibility: its dynamics. So, to certify a socially responsible behaviour of an organization is something theoretical, an artificial construct. In consequence, a certificate on SR (social responsibility) or CSR (corporate social responsibility) would not say anything meaningful. Again, ISO has taken a wise decision that there is no ISO 26000 certificate.
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The ISO 26000 says this very clearly in its scope: “This International Standard is not a management system standard. It is not intended or appropriate for certification purposes or regulatory or contractual use. Any offer to certify, or claims to be certified, to ISO 26000 would be a misrepresentation of the intent and purpose and a misuse of this International Standard. As this International Standard does not contain requirements, any such certification would not be a demonstration of conformity with this International Standard.”

The same logic applies to certifiable derivative standards like the Danish Standard DS 26001 Social responsibility management system – Specifications that builds on ISO 26000, uses all the internationally gathered know-how, transposes it into a so-called "management system" (can one "manage" behaviour?) contains requirements and thereby renders it certifiable. However, as just mentioned, also a “DS 26001 Certificate” would not necessarily represent anything. Quite to the contrary: considering social responsibility as a checklist of ‘things’ to tick off places its creative character upside down! Back to organizations: they are an integral part of society, regardless of acting with that awareness or not, they are not totally separable or independent entities. As organizations differ significantly, their contributions to society also differ significantly, depending on their size, type and location, the level of staff education, the commitment of leadership, the market position, the moral values and many other characteristics: for example, both, a multinational like the Ford Motor Company and a shoemaker in Ulan Bator, contribute in their specific way to their societies, contribute what is decided by Ford managers or by the Mongolian shoemaker.

What is ISO 26000? In the past five years, the ISO Working Group has done a great job in developing a 100-page document. It explains – in many instances in great detail – how social responsibility can be understood and what “... an organization should...” do. The important clause 6 describes the core subjects identified by the Working Group that developed and wrote the document: Organizational governance Human rights Labour practices The environment Fair operating practices Consumer issues, and Community involvement and development.

Each core subject offers a number of further issues and possible actions, which users may find helpful. However, the claim of ISO 26000 is unrealistic that all core subjects are relevant to all organizations; see next paragraph, item 3. Therefore, to be practically applicable, it needs to be left to each user’s decision to select those core subjects and issues where his/her organization could effectively engage itself. The document also contains a number of other problems. The major ones are: 1. Certification: in spite of the mentioned ISO and IAF prohibition, certification bodies may widely disregard premise that a socially responsible behaviour is not “certifiable,” and offer their services in spite of this, for little purpose other than to make money, which given the
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ban on certification is itself ethically questionable and therefore socially irresponsible; more information on interesting cases of misconceptions and misuse of ISO 26000 is available at http://www.26k-estimation.com/html/misconceptions_and_misuse.html. Definitions: with all due respect of the Working Group's endeavours on definitions, those crucial ones of international norms of behaviour, organization, and stakeholder do not seem sufficiently mature. Claiming that all core subjects are relevant to all organizations: this claim does not seem realistic; a manufacturer of capital goods will not find consumer issues relevant, charity and welfare organizations may not find fair operating practices relevant, etc. Applicability to all organizations regardless of their type, size and location: small and medium organizations (SMEs, up to 250 persons) that have been interviewed expressed having problems with the volume, the degree of detail, and the often bulky or confusing language. SMEs are generally managed by the owner, most of them focus on the local market, their priority is to survive and their “social behaviour” is continuously scrutinised by their local community. Often, their continued existence is completely dependent on acting in a socially responsible manner, a fact intimately understood and appreciated without the benefit of any guidance standard. Micro-organizations (up to 10 persons, explicitly included in ISO 26000) may find the guidance interesting but not particularly applicable to any/most of their operation. Price: just imagine that your micro-organization received a micro-credit from the Grameen Bank and now needs to buy the ISO 26000 document for some 190 US Dollars from the national standards organization. At http://www.26kestimation.com/html/best_prices_for_iso_26000.html a list of various prices and sources is offered. The standards organizations (ISO and its national member bodies) seem to have missed their opportunity to contribute to the global enhancement of social responsibility through the widest possible proliferation of the document: they could offer a hardcopy for printing and shipping costs only in the downloadable version for free, if they so wished!

Using ISO 26000 and communicating its successful use Other standards already exist covering many issues of ISO 26000. Basically one would expect ISO 26000 to offer an added value. One such added value is that it is supposed to be easy to use: every organization can use it, without "assistance" of others external to the organization, without training, without advisers and consultants, and without certifiers. Merely as a user, you should be able to read and use the guidance standard with your understanding, your own feelings and motivations and your own best knowledge of your society and obligations or responsibilities within that sphere. This can easily be verified by checking the core subjects and their issues. For this purpose, a user guide called 26k-User-Guide has been developed, with a specialized 26k-Issue-Tool, see http://www.26k-estimation.com/html/user_guide_iso_26000.html. This tool, expressed as an Excel sheet, is freely available and an easy to use aid; it reproduces the core subjects and issues, and allows a check of effectiveness per issue and an estimation of the impact of your possible actions by seeking answers to the following questions:
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Is the core subject and its issues deemed relevant to an organization? What leverage effect has an organization on this issue? What kind of activities can an organization undertake on this issue? Have you ensured that planned activities are not in conflict with applicable law? What impact will the activities have? Which stakeholders should be involved in this issue?

The result is a thorough analysis of the ISO 26000 guidance, which an organization can reasonably follow. The deliberations are filed, e.g. as input to a dialogue with stakeholders or customers or for a future update. This analysis is also helpful in identifying the added value that ISO 26000 offers to an organization. Further, this analysis can be used as reference in the organization’s statement on its successful use of ISO 26000. A proposed text for such a user statement, in line with ISO's recommendation, is part of the 26k-User-Guide. Of course, other tools are and will be available, and it is up to each user to decide about the tools he really wants to apply.

Perspective ISO 26000:2010 is a good historical document and can be used in today's world. However, in a number of aspects it is not yet good enough! It suffers primarily under the all embracing desire to cover all core subjects and all issues which may be relevant to all organizations regardless of their size and location in all societies. This global claim may be one of the reasons for the emergence of a number of user guides that attempt to better delineate the area of application. NORMAPME for example, the European Office of Crafts, Trades and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises for Standardization, is going to publish an
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"SME user guide" around June/July 2011 that focuses especially on the given circumstances for European small and medium-sized enterprises. As regards the core subject Labour practices, one could just think of the different level of detail in occupational health and safety related law and regulation in Germany or Costa Rica... Nevertheless: Every organization should feel encouraged to try using ISO 26000. Based on the broadest possible feedback, ISO 26000 is foreseen to be revised in 2013 with the goal of becoming even more practical. The revised ISO 26000 should have half the volume, be free of redundancies, be written in a clearer language and a more encouraging than demanding tone, and it should express only realistic claims. As a social contribution of standards’ organizations – they are also "organizations" as defined in ISO 26000 – the download document should be available for free and as hardcopy it should have a fair price. Maybe you are encouraged now to give your feedback to ISO and the ISO member body of your country?

The Author Guido Guertler served as head of corporate standardization and regulation at SIEMENS, for many years, and held various leading positions in standardization related organizations like

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DIN, Advisory committees to the Director of DIN DKE Steering committees (DKE is the German national member of IEC) CENELEC Vice President Co-chair of the TABD Working Group on standardization and conformity Assessment (Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue) Co-founder and co-chair of ICSCA, the industry cooperation on standardization and conformity assessment IEEE Standards Association, member of the Board of Governors.

He is bearer of the DIN needle of honour and has been honoured with the IEEE Standards Medallion. He was a member of the ISO/TMB/SAG Special Advisory Group on Social Responsibility, representing the interests of European industry, backing his contributions through dialogue with some 70 enterprises (2003-01 till 2004-06). In the succeeding ISO/TMB/WG SR, which was tasked to draft the ISO 26000 Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility, he continued as a member of the ISG (Industry Stakeholder Group) and an ICC (International Chamber of Commerce) “observer”. Since March 2010 he served in addition as a NORMAPME “expert” (European Office of Crafts, Trades and Small and Mediumsized Enterprises for Standardization). His website is www.26k-estimation.com . His practical experiences include a family owned enterprise with 30 employees at 3 locations, producing fertilizer, and many contacts with SR practising companies. In May 2009 he joined the FOUNDATION FOR A NEW ETHICAL BUSINESS as a friend.

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